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Vacation idea

Christian disaster relief will be an inexpensive trip that you'll never forget

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Still haven't taken your summer vacation-and still haven't been able to decide what you'd do if you did take one? I've got a suggestion for you-but scheduling might seem to be a problem.

I've even checked in with NOAA-the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-only to discover that they're not likely to be much help with that scheduling.

My suggestion is that you get in touch with whatever agency of your church helps its members get involved with hands-on help for folks who have suffered different kinds of natural disasters. Dozens of denominational and parachurch entities have developed expertise on this front-and almost all of them are still welcoming volunteers with a great variety of skills.

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The reason NOAA won't be of much help, of course, is that for all its expertise, NOAA doesn't know how to predict the next hurricane, which is supposed to be their specialty. Tornadoes, floods, and tsunamis are way outside NOAA's jurisdiction. (Even when forecasting tropical storm systems, NOAA is frustratingly cautious. Most recently, NOAA is predicting a 50 percent likelihood of a "near-normal" summer of storms; "above-normal" is 25 percent likely, and "below-normal" is 25 percent likely. Does that give you a sense of a good return on the tax dollars you've invested in NOAA?)

So you'll have to schedule this trip on your own. But disaster relief is a big enterprise these days, and you'll find lots of opportunity-maybe for you and your whole family. Starting in recent years with Hurricane Katrina, and continuing through a whole series of calamities across the continent, the rebuilding efforts are still huge.

While attending the annual national meetings of my own denomination in Louisville last week, I walked six blocks down the street from my hotel to a mini-construction site where men, women, and teenagers were mass-producing a flatbed-truckful of storage sheds. The small buildings were all heading the next day for Henryville, Ind., the town that had been flattened by a tornado three months ago. Even now, some Henryville residents have no place to keep a few meager possessions while the rebuilding of their town continues.

Disaster relief, according to folks I've been talking to who have expertise in the field, is one of the very best kinds of short-term assignments Christians can take on. Disaster relief, by definition, typically catches people at a point of profound need. People can tell you they don't need a Sunday school class, or a vacation Bible school, or even a literacy or a nutrition class. But it's pretty hard for someone whose home has just been ripped to shreds to say: "I don't need you."

And such needs continue at literally dozens of sites around the nation. "And you don't have to pay Delta airlines $2,500 to get a volunteer to the place where he or she can make a difference," pointed out Sherry Lanier, chief facilitator for the disaster response team of the Presbyterian Church in America. She wasn't arguing against helping to meet needs in foreign countries-but was stressing how what might typically be spent on transportation might be used instead for construction materials and relief goods.

A key challenge, wherever such efforts are made, is to make sure everyone involved knows how to answer the question: "Why are you doing this?" The answer to that question, says Lanier, might come in a variety of expressions-but it should always include something to the effect that "We are doing this out of a sense of thanksgiving to God for what He has given us in the gospel of Jesus." No one, she said, should ever get involved in such relief work without being ready to be a straightforward witness to his or her Christian faith.

"Some people are just wired to do this," Lanier told me. "Sometimes it's men who know they're not equipped to work in the church nursery or to sing in the church choir. But if they're like me, they can feel the smile of God as they exercise their tool skills-and because they have a chance to relate one-on-one to someone who maybe never heard the gospel of Jesus before."

It's late in the summer, I know, to be laying such plans. But it might be the most memorable vacation you've taken in a long, long time.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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